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Rockin’ Content You’ll Love
Bob Dylan: The Best Versions Of His 80 Best Songs
As close as Dylan ever got to Jimmy Buffett, this is a breezy tune about “magic in a magical land.” It’s the second song on ‘Desire’; the politically charged “Hurricane” was the first, so it’s understandable that he might want to offset that song with something lighter.
Yes, Miley Cyrus. For just a moment forget everything you know about her. She was 20 when this came out, and she got off the wrecking ball for long enough to remind everyone what a great singer she is.
It’s understandable that new generations of rock fans might reject Dylan; who wants to listen to their parents’ music. Or their grandparents’ music? But all it takes is a heavy band like MCR to bring Dylan’s songs to new audiences.
This album saw Mumford (at the peak of Mumford and Sons fame), Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes composing music to newly uncovered Bob Dylan lyrics... from 1967. This song, featuring Johnny Depp on electric guitar and the Haim sisters on backing vocals, was the highlight.
Most generations and scenes have some reverence for Dylan, but that wasn’t the cast for the post-punk/goth scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Indeed, when Siouxsie & the Banshees decided to cover this song, they didn’t realize that it was by Bob Dylan; they liked British singer Julie Driscoll’s version and didn’t think about who wrote it.
It was always fun to try and figure out who wrote what in the Wilburys. But “If You Belonged to Me “ was very much a Dylan song (and he did all of the lead vocals). Years later, when George Harrison showed up at a VH1 studio accompanying Ravi Shankar (to help promote Shankar’s album), he agreed to grab an acoustic guitar and play a few songs, including this one.
Recorded by Chris Martin for the first episode of 'Saturday Night Live at Home,' Martin's cover of "Shelter From The Storm" was comforting at a time when we needed that.
It sounds like a stream of consciousness journal entry from someone drinking away his sorrows; he just can’t let go of the memory of the one who, according to the narrator, “left me standin' in the doorway cryin'/Under the midnight moon.” Meanwhile, he’s got other troubles on his mind: “Maybe they'll get me and maybe they won't/But not tonight and it won't be here/There are things I could say, but I don't/I know the mercy of God must be near.”
It’s a rare laid back moment on the aggressive ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ album, but the last line is a kicker: “I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss/Don’t say I never warned you, when your train gets lost.”
Or, “How Dylan got his groove back.” It’s not a stretch to say that as the ‘80s went on, Dylan seemed less inspired, but by joining this supergroup – which also included one of his idols, Roy Orbison, as well as George Harrison, Tom Petty and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, he seemed to find new inspiration. This was his best contribution to the first album (although the Springsteen parody “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” was definitely funny).
Decades before Van Morrison became the musical equivalent of “man who shakes fist at cloud,” Van fronted a pretty rocking band called Them. (OK, he’s made a lot of amazing music in the decades since.) If Them’s version sounds familiar, it might be because it was prominently sampled in Beck’s 1996 song “Jackass,” from his ‘Odelay’ album.
A harrowing account of the killing of Black barmaid Hattie Carroll by 24-year-old William Zantzinger, “who at twenty-four years [old], owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres/With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him/And high office relations in the politics of Maryland, reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders.” The song isn’t totally accurate: while Dylan sings that he was charged with first degree murder, he was actually charged with second degree murder. But other than that, he cuts to the heart of a painful and tragic story about race in America.
Legend has it that Dylan wrote this song after being refused service at a hotel due to his messy appearance. When he wrote “The sands will roll/Out a carpet of gold/For your weary toes to be a-touchin'” maybe he was imagining that one day, he’d sell his publishing catalog for hundreds of millions of dollars!
A song about a relationship that was never going to work out. Johnette Napolitano sings it as if she’s lived every word.
A devastating song about a farmer who succumbs to despair; things on the farm aren’t working out and he’s got five children to feed. That’s where the story starts, and it just gets darker from there. The timeless song was brought to a new generation with this punk rock cover.
Dylan originally wrote this song for ‘The Times They Are A-Changin'” but didn’t release it until 1991. Stewart’s version is the definitive one, and the best of all of Rod’s Dylan covers.
Like everyone else of his generation, Dylan was profoundly influenced by Elvis, and he was thrilled that “The King” recorded one of his songs. By 1966, though, Presley was only a shadow of his ‘50s self. However, he seemed to summon back his mojo for this stripped-down ballad.
Dylan recorded a few versions of this song over the years, but DTB singer Mike Mattison does a commanding vocal take here, and of course, Derek Trucks’ slide guitar is stellar.
A folk song that Dylan recorded for 1964’s ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan,’ Springsteen transformed it into a stadium anthem. The song provided the title for the 1988 Amnesty International tour that Springsteen headlined. Every night on the tour, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Yousou N’Dour would join the E Street Band for a rousing version.
A song with lots of Biblical references, some believe that Dylan himself was “the wicked messenger.” The Black Keys give the song a bit of extra menace, turning it into a ragged blues stomp.
The White Stripes also covered “One More Cup Of Coffee” but this track – originally from 1976’s ‘Desire’ -- was their best Dylan cover. Had Dylan heard the White Stripes’ covers of his songs? Maybe, and he was certainly familiar with the band: on March 17, 2004, Dylan had Jack White join him on stage for the White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit.” White’s other band, the Raconteurs, opened for Dylan in 2006.
Rancid is one of the most consistently traditional punk rock bands of the post-Clash era but front man Tim Armstrong (sometimes known as “Tim Timebomb”) could also play beautiful acoustic jams, as he does here.
Wow. It hits differently now. You can find it on YouTube.
Dylan could never sing this song with the authority that Cash brings to it, and certainly not to a captive audience at a prison.
“God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son'/Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on!'” sounded scary when Dylan sang it, but terrifying when PJ Harvey growled it.
Dylan recorded it during the ‘80s, but didn’t release it until 1991’s ‘The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.’ This version by Susan Tedeschi, featuring her husband Derek Trucks and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, has extra weight: Tedeschi was a new mother at the time. This recording was used in ‘Not My Life,’ a 2011 documentary about human trafficking.
‘Love And Theft’ has a sense of impending disaster, especially on this song. And it's absolutely haunting, in retrospect, that the album was released on 9/11.
A song from 1983’s ‘Infidels,’ it might be telling a story of one person who is “hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused, and his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.” But it’s likely a metaphor for society addicted to violence and imperialism.
From Dylan’s 1989 classic ‘Oh Mercy,’ Willie’s deadpan delivery fits the weariness of someone having yet another disagreement with their partner, knowing that the relationship is circling the drain.
'Gotta Serve Somebody’ featured gospel acts covering songs from Dylan’s Christian phase. This song , from the ‘Slow Train Coming’ album, sees Bob joining gospel legend Mavis Staples (who he proposed to in the ‘60s; she turned him down). The song starts with a funny skit with the two bantering together, before they launch into a guitar heavy version of the song. Dylan clearly liked the arrangement – he began playing this version on tour soon after this recording.
From Dylan’s 1989 classic ‘Oh Mercy,’ Willie’s deadpan delivery fits the weariness of someone having yet another disagreement with their partner, knowing that the relationship is circling the drain.
A surreal and cynical tune where Dylan looks at a number of seemingly untrustworthy characters. There’s the Senator showing everyone his gun, handing out free tickets to his son’s wedding (the narrator asks, “and wouldn’t it be my luck to get caught without a ticket and be discovered beneath a truck?”). The, there’s the preacher who walks around “with twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest” (the narrator notes: “Not even you can hide – you see, you’re just like me. I hope you’re satisfied”). Or the family who talks about “how badly they were shocked” by their grandpa at his funeral. Dylan just sets the scene and lets you judge the characters.
First question: who is Ben Waters, and how did he get the Rolling Stones to guest on this song? He’s a boogie-woogie pianist who plays in some of Charlie Watts’ projects. This album was a tribute to the Stones’ late piano player (and road manager) Ian Stewart. This song features not only Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, but also former bass player Bill Wyman, playing with those guys on a recording for the first time in about two decades. They covered “Watching The River Flow” because Stewart allegedly said that it was “the only decent thing Bob Dylan ever did!”
An anti-war song written by Dylan in 1962, but he never released it on an album until his ‘MTV Unplugged’ in 1995. It’s a devastating story about a mother who happily sends her son to war. When he returns, the reunion doesn’t go as she expected.
Generations of songwriters have looked up to Dylan, but he had his own heroes, including folk legend Woody Guthrie. This was one of only two originals on Dylan’s self-titled debut.
The Dylan-based film ‘I’m Not There’ made the point that Bob Dylan has played so many “characters” over the course of his nearly-60 year career, so they cast a number of actors – including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger – to play different incarnations. So yeah, Dylan does contain multitudes. And multitudes of famous names are dropped here: Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, the Rolling Stones, Beethoven and Chopin.
Dylan was in his 50s when he wrote this song that looked at his own mortality. Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert was in his 30s when he recorded this cover, and yet he’s able to bring gravitas to a song that a 30 year old shouldn’t really be able to relate to.
Tom Morello has gone on record (including to this writer) saying, “I may be the last person alive who still believes that Dylan sold out at Newport in 1965 when he went electric.” And yes, this is Tom Morello from Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine. Yes, this is Tom Morello, one of the last true guitar heroes. On the other hand, Rage noted that there were "no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record" on their debut album, and here, Morello is using drum loops. But hey, we all evolve, Tom! Seriously, he does a great job with this classic jam, which Dylan recorded in 1983, but didn’t release until 1991’s ‘The Bootleg Series 1-3.’ Tom's version sounds a bit like if Leonard Cohen fronted Massive Attack and they hired a face melting guitarist.
The Band helped Dylan to make his intimate songs into arena rock anthems on this album; it didn’t always work, but it definitely did with “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Of course, Dylan didn’t like the album.
Co-written with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, and featuring the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Brent Mydland on backing vocals, it became a hard rocking staple of Dylan’s tours for years afterwards. It was also the first Dylan song in years to get radio play.
The opening song from Dylan’s classic 1997 album made it clear from the first notes that, 35 years into his career, he still had amazing songs in him. The song might be most famous for its use in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Or for Dylan’s performance at the Grammy Awards, where he was interrupted by “Soy Bomb.” (Google it if you don’t know what we’re talking about.) The album went on to win three awards that night, including Album of the Year. It was also voted album of the year in the often-snobby Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll.
Recorded on the 1987 tour where the Grateful Dead was Dylan’s backing band. Frankly most of the album was pretty lackluster, and allegedly, so was the tour. But “Slow Train” somehow clicked and had a greater sense of urgency than the studio version from 1979’s ‘Slow Train Coming.’ This song is one of the definite highlights of his Christian era.
A solo live performance featuring the late Buckley accompanying himself on electric guitar. This is one of the most tragic songs about being dumped, and Buckley’s performance is devastating.
The late Chris Whitley told this writer that the lyrics to this song are “so ridiculously good, it almost makes me want to quit writing songs.” It’s one of Dylan’s most romantic songs... or is it? Dylan has said that he doesn’t know what the song is about.
The original “Lay Lady Lay” from 1969’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ sported one of Dylan’s sweetest vocal performances, but here, Buddy Guy and Anthony Hamilton’s duet makes it even sweeter.
A joyous ragtime-era sounding song, Dylan almost sounds like he’s paying tribute to Louis Armstrong. It’s one of a few that Dylan has co-written with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter.
Willie Nelson was the perfect guy to sing this Tex-Mex flavored ballad, and he worked so well with Calexico, who specialize in that sound.
The Dead Weather, of course, is one of Jack White’s bands – he plays drums and sings backing vocals. The real star here is singer Alison Mosshart. But really, the entire band brings a lot more muscle to the original.
Bowie was a long-time Dylan fan, releasing “Song For Bob Dylan” on his 1971 album, ‘Hunky Dory.’ Clearly he remained a fan through the years; he recorded this song a year after Dylan released it on 1997’s ‘Time Out Of Mind.’ It’s a great cover (and Dylan’s original is amazing)… but obviously it hits differently now, being released almost exactly five years after his passing.
Dylan doesn’t have too many party jams, but this is definitely one of them. Everyone loves singing along to the chorus: “Everybody must get stoned!” Although he may not be only referring to smoking, he could be talking about getting stoned in the Biblical sense. He wrote this after he’d gone electric, and lot of his former folk fans were furious at the time.
Dylan gave this one to his former opening act, Sheryl Crow, before he even released it himself on 2001’s ‘Love And Theft.’ (He originally tried it out for 1997’s ‘Time Out Of Mind’ but wasn’t satisfied with his original version.) The Dixie Chicks covered it, as did Ryan Adams, but Crow’s version remains the best one.
Heart originally recorded this song from 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’ with Chris Cornell, but they ended up releasing another version with Layne Staley (hopefully the Cornell version will see the light of day at some point). Layne’s angsty vocals complemented Ann and Nancy Wilson’s well, with each singer taking a verse. It would have been great to hear more Heart/Layne collaborations.
Dylan’s original is a surprisingly down-the-middle blues-rock jam, and KWS specialized in that; to many, it was the song that turned them on to this young guitar hero.
All-star finales are usually fun, but it’s a “you had to be there” kind of thing. They don’t translate into great live recordings. This is a notable exception. One of the last songs from Dylan’s 30th anniversary tribute concert, it was a perfectly “cast” version of the song. Clapton and Young’s guitar solos totally complemented each other. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” had a bit more gravitas in ‘92 than it did in 1964, when Dylan released it as a solo folk song on ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan.’
This might have been an overlooked song... until the Coen Brothers used it in the opening credits of their 1998 masterpiece, ‘The Big Lebowski.’ We could say more, but, hey Dude: let’s go bowling.
My Morning Jacket frontman has the perfect voice to cover Dylan and pop star Kesha shows a different side of herself in this gospel arrangement of one of Dylan’s greatest anthems. (Kesha has also recorded a great cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”)
It was almost like Dylan was covering himself. The original verion was a solo folk tune from ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan,’ but this version, featuring guitarist Robbie Robertson, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko (who would later form the Band) and drummer Mickey Jones surely shocked the audience, filled with folkies who saw their icon selling out to rock and roll before their eyes.
George had started a friendship with Dylan in the later years of the Beatles, and in ‘70, Dylan gave Harrison this song (Dylan recorded it as well, but Harrison’s was released first). The music press went nuts over the idea of a Harrison/Dylan collaboration... and nearly two decades later, they were bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys.
A great story about someone standing trial and he doesn’t even know what the charges are, but he makes an escape when a lightning bolt hits the courthouse. This isn’t Hendrix’s best Dylan cover, but it’s a great one.
You could argue that “country rock” started with ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo,’ the Byrds’ first album with Gram Parsons. Dylan’s folk version wasn’t released until 1971’s ‘Greatest Hits Vol. II’ but the Byrds’ countrified version is the definitive take on the song, and surely the most influential.
The O’Jays originally recorded two versions of this for their 1991 album, ‘Emotionally Yours,’ one with a smooth R&B feel and the other is a gospel version. The gospel version was the better one, but it got better still when they performed it at the Dylan tribute concert a year later, backed by Booker T & The MGs.
The White Stripes, Roger McGuinn and Tom Jones have all covered it. But Plant’s subtle delivery combined with his band’s pulling out the middle eastern themes in the music makes this version the definitive one.
‘Together Through Life’ may be Dylan’s last classic album, possibly thanks to his great choices in collaborators. The Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter co-wrote most of the album, and the band included Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on guitar and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on accordion and guitar. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” is a love song, but laced with the fear of losing that relationship. “Oh well, I love you, pretty baby/You're the only love I've ever known,” he sings, but then adds, “Just as long as you stay with me.”
Neil had a radio hit with his version of “All Along The Watchtower” from this concert but his other performance, the lesser known “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” was also excellent. His set worked so well that he hired Booker T & The MGs for his next tour. Younger fans may have recognized the line, “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough” because the Beastie Boys sampled the original, from ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ on their 1992 song “Finger Lickin’ Good.”
There’s a lot of competition for the best version of this song: Dylan first gave it to Billy Joel, who recorded it on his 1997 collection, ‘Greatest Hits, Volume III.’ Dylan later did his own version and Joan Osborne, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks have all covered it. But Adele’s version is the best: and it also introduced the song to a new generation.
Nearly four decades into his career, Dylan was on a hot streak: following 1997’s ‘Time Out Of Mind,’ which won him Album of the Year at the Grammys, he contributed ‘Things Have Changed’ to the ‘Wonder Boys’ soundtrack. The song won Dylan’s only Academy Award. And it marked a break from the death and mortality obsessed ‘Time Out Of Mind’ album. You felt that Dylan was grinning during this song, and as he said, “things have changed.”
One of the sweetest songs written about parenthood, Chrissie Hynde ditches her usual venom for tenderness on this cover. Lots of people have done this song, including Rod Stewart (who changed the lyrics and ended up with a co-writing credit for his version) but the Pretenders’ take is the most moving.
The title is a quote from the Bible (Psalm 108:13), it’s one of the most powerful songs from Dylan’s protest/folk era, and takes a look at how Americans often feel that God will always side with America in any conflict, no matter what. The lyrics reference the slaughter of Native Americans, the Spanish-American War, the Civil War but also the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot. The song inspired Tim Rice to write songs from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ from Judas Iscariot’s perspective.
U2’s most famous Dylan cover is “All Along The Watchtower,” but this is their best one (it also quotes a bit of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey”). Hopefully they’ll release it one day. It’s an anthem for anyone treated unfairly by their employer, and that might be why it’s been covered so often, including by Rage Against The Machine, the Specials and Solomon Burke.
By the ‘70s, Dylan wasn’t writing protest songs anymore, but when he read about the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, he was moved to write this. Carter and another man, John Artis, had been charged with a triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. The following year they were found guilty of the murders. In the next few years, controversy emerged over the case, ranging from allegations of faulty evidence and questionable eyewitness testimony to an unfair trial. Dylan’s song (and a few benefit concerts) drew attention to the Carter’s plight. In 1985 Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter's release. He said that the prosecution had been "based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.” The judge apparently never listened to the song, which did have some factual inaccuracies.
There’s been tons of covers of this song, but something about Billy Joel’s version, featuring just Billy singing and playing acoustic guitar (not piano!) at a press conference in Russia, as he was going on a six-date tour there, just felt like the most appropriate demonstration of the song’s title.
Dylan has done some pretty harsh tunes about people who have found themselves as the target of his ire, but this one takes the cake. He starts out with a pretty harsh put-down, “You’ve got a lotta never to say you are my friend.” Why so mad, Bob? “When I was down, you just stood there, grinnin’!” And it gets harsher from there.
By the early ‘90s, Clapton was more popular than ever, but his guitar playing lacked the fire of his earlier years. That fire came back in this performance; Clapton took Dylan’s folk song about betrayal, from 1962’s ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,’ and turned it into an explosive blues jam. It’s not just a great guitar performance, it’s also one of Clapton’s best vocal performances, ever.
By the fall of 1992, Eddie Vedder was a pretty huge star: Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ was a massively successful debut album, their “MTV Unplugged” catapulted them to alterative rock’s A-list and they were one of the highlights of the summer’s Lollapalooza. But he was still a new name to many of the older fans attending this show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, and this performance changed that. A lot of people have covered this song, from folk singer Odetta to proto metal band Mountain. Vedder and McCready have done it with Pearl Jam as well, but it’s this stripped-down version that has the most tension and rage.
GNR started playing this one on their ‘Appetite For Destruction’ tour, to the surprise of some; it seemed unlikely that this badass rock band from the gutters of L.A. were Dylan fans. And yet, it became one of their signature songs. A live version was released as the B-side to the “Welcome To The Jungle” 12” and then they did a studio version for the soundtrack of the 1990 Tom Cruise movie ‘Days Of Thunder.’ But this version from ‘Use Your Illusion II’ is their best take, and the definitive version of the song. Warren Zevon’s version – a rather literal take from his 2003 swan song ‘The Wind’ -- does come close though.
It seems like it’s a bunch of unrelated stories, but it works perfectly. Dylan allegedly took art classes at Carnegie Hall in 1974 and was influenced by his tutor Norman Raeben, and, in particular Raeben's view of time. In a 1978 interview Dylan explained: "What's different about it is that there's a code in the lyrics, and there's also no sense of time. There's no respect for it. You've got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room.” It’s the highlight of a brilliant album - ‘Rolling Stone’ recently ranked ‘Blood On The Tracks’ as the 9th best album of all time, the best ranking of all of Dylan’s albums.
Dylan was a star on the New York folk scene but “Blowin’ In The Wind” made him an instant icon. Dylan released it on 1963’s ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.’ Stevie Wonder first recorded it three years later on his 1966 album, ‘Uptight,’ when he was a teenager. But the version he did a quarter of a century later at Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert carried a lot more weight.
In 1964, Dylan released ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan,’ another solo acoustic affair. So, it’s hard to imagine how shocking it must have been to hear this electric funky rock jam that kicked off the follow-up album. The song has some of his folk influences, but also adds Jack Kerouac and Chuck Berry (particularly “Too Much Monkey Business”).
Straight up, it’s the gold standard of covers. We’ve selected a lot of covers on this list, but only this one could make you forget about the original. Dylan himself said, “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day... when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way."
It was tough to figure out which version of this song to use for the number one spot on this list; Dylan’s version from ‘The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4’ is so venomous and defiant that we almost went with it, but the studio version from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is ultimately the most iconic one. The song, propelled by Al Kooper’s Hammond organ, was over six minutes long, which was unheard of for rock radio at that time, and so Columbia Records didn’t want to release it. But it got into the hands of radio DJs and it took off, hitting #2 on the Billboard charts, being held out of the #1 slot by the Beatles’ “Help.” And it paved the way for longer songs, from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Layla,” to get on the FM airwaves.